Albany

As we come back from the weekend that marks the unofficial start of summer, let's visit Bishop Maginn High School, where students and teachers are hoping to grow 1,000 pounds of produce in the coming months — with most of it going to charity.

That's a lot of food, and it'll be the result of no small amount of work.

This is the third straight year that students are growing food at the school in Albany's Mansion neighborhood. The garden occupies a narrow, sloping spot behind the building on Park Avenue; the governor's mansion sits on the other side of the fence.

"I tell the kids all the time that people don't need to be hungry," said Sue Silverstein Gilligan, a teacher at the high school. "Just because we can't feed the world doesn't mean we can't feed the neighborhood."

Most of the produce goes to the food pantry associated with the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Sister Margaret Mary Hohl, who runs the pantry, tells me that the fresh fruits and vegetables disappear quickly.

It was three years ago when Bishop Maginn, a school run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, moved from its longtime home on Slingerland Street to its considerably smaller location in the former Cathedral School. The move was mostly forced by declining enrollment.

With about 130 students, Bishop Maginn is still a remarkably small high school, but its enrollment has been growing since the relocation. In part, that's because the school has found new vitality and purpose as a home for children of Albany's large refugee population.

Teens from Myanmar and other countries account for about a third of the school's students. Fundraisers and donations made from pews across the diocese help pay their tuition.

I visited the school on a recent morning when students were just beginning to get plants in the ground after too many rainy spring days. Some of the students will return to the school during the summer break to tend the garden and pick its tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other produce.

Gardening was a new endeavor among the American students that I talked to. Not so for the refugee students, who often come from countries where the family tradition of growing food is alive and well.

I asked a junior from Myanmar named Ni-Lar — she preferred that I didn't use her last name — what she liked about gardening. "Watching God's creation grow step-by-step is a very beautiful thing," she said.

What a wonderful way to put it, and I think nearly every backyard gardener understands what she means. Gardening connects us to forces larger than ourselves. Stick a tomato plant in the ground and suddenly you're paying closer attention to the weather and the natural rhythms that modern life encourages us to ignore.

The garden at Bishop Maginn is small, but it's part of something bigger. Walk around the Mansion neighborhood, one of the oldest and most densely populated sections of the city, and you'll notice there's a remarkable amount of agriculture taking place.

For one, there's the Radix Ecological Sustainability Center on Grand Street, home to chickens and goats, gardens and greenhouses. It's worth a visit.

Then, there are two community gardens, both managed by Capital Roots, in Lincoln Park. Both are used by a diverse cross-section of the city — including, increasingly, the immigrant populations drawn to Albany from across the world.

On a recent morning, in the sprawling community garden above Warren Street, I chatted (sort of) with a man who spoke little English. He told me he would use his plot mostly to grow soy for soup.

A few feet away, David Morrow was turning over the soil at his 300-square-foot plot. His garden was still a blank canvas — an exciting time of year for a gardener — and Morrow wasn't yet sure what he'd plant.

There was a time, just a few generations back, when nearly everyone grew at least a portion of their own food. Heck, the so-called "victory gardens" planted in backyards during World War II produced about 40 percent of the nation's fresh fruits and vegetables.

Supermarkets and easy transportation helped kill the habit for many Americans, but the efforts at Bishop Maginn and elsewhere in the Mansion neighborhood represent a return to tradition and at least a modicum of self-sufficiency.

I could prattle on about why that's good, but you'll have to excuse me. I have tomato plants to get in the ground.

cchurchill@timesunion.com • 518-454-5442 • @chris_churchill